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Jerusalem Buzzes With Talk of Unilateral Moves Ahead of Sharon Speech

JERUSALEM — Israel’s political establishment, from left to right, is waiting nervously for the expected unveiling next week by Prime Minister Sharon of his long-awaited plan for ending Israel’s current standoff with the Palestinians.

Sharon is said to be planning to outline a detailed plan in a speech next Thursday at the conclusion of the Fourth Herzliya Conference on Israeli National Security. According to reports emanating from his office, the prime minister intends to propose that if and when current efforts to revive talks with the Palestinians fail, and the American-backed road map to peace is declared officially dead, Israel should carry out a phased series of unilateral steps to separate itself from the Palestinians. The ultimate goal would be for Israel to “decide on its own where its border should be,” as Sharon put it recently.

Reports of the upcoming speech come amid a flurry of conflicting efforts to end the current stalemate in Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy. They include a brace of unofficial peace plans, including the much-publicized Geneva Initiative, as well as a round of talks among Palestinian factions, glaringly unsuccessful so far, to achieve an internal cease-fire and open the way for new talks with Israel.

The most dramatic proposal for ending the deadlock, however, came from Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert last week in an interview in the mass daily Yediot Aharonot. Olmert called, with what appears to be tacit encouragement from Sharon, for Israel to withdraw unilaterally from most of the West Bank and Gaza, abandoning its 36-year rule over the territories.

Sharon is not expected to go that far in his Herzliya speech next week. At most, observers say, his

plan will include a withdrawal from most of Gaza and from many West Bank areas previously under Palestinian control. In the process, Sharon is expected to call for some smaller settlements to be “consolidated” into larger ones.

Offering a preview of his plan in remarks this week to the Knesset foreign affairs and defense committee, Sharon recalled that he had called as early as 1988 for a “partition” of the country, but insisted it would occur unilaterally only if diplomacy failed. He stated flatly, however, that there could be “some movement of settlements” to new locations even earlier. He gave no details. His remarks prompted a firestorm of criticism from his longtime allies on the right, including several coalition partners as well as leaders of the settler movement.

The prime minister’s Herzliya speech, if delivered as promised, could spark a revolt within his ruling coalition and the beginnings of a realignment in the political map. Right-wing coalition partners, including the National Union and National Religious Party, are threatening to leave the government if the prime minister commits himself to dismantling settlements, as he has hinted he will do. That could open the way for a renewal of the national unity government between Likud and Labor. Labor leader Shimon Peres met with Sharon this week and reportedly dismissed the idea of a new unity government, but few observers took his rejection as final.

At the same time, Labor itself is sharply split over Yossi Beilin’s so-called Geneva Initiative. A move by the party to join the coalition could drive doves such as Amram Mitzna and Avraham Burg to bolt for the newly formed Ya’ad party, a merger of Beilin’s Shahar faction and the long-established Meretz party.

The result of the various defections could be a new political map, divided not into two main blocs but three: a left-wing bloc led by Beilin, favoring continued bilateral efforts to reach an Israeli-Palestinian agreement; a centrist bloc led by Sharon, Olmert and perhaps Peres, favoring unilateral moves without an agreement, and a right-wing bloc pressing for Israel to retain its current borders.

After three years of violence and national consensus, the debate over the future of the territories has thus broken out again in full force. This time, however, the terms have changed. As all opinion polls show, Israelis are more willing than ever before to give up territories, remove settlements and even accept the rise of an independent Palestinian state. At the same time, though, they have largely given up hope of finding a Palestinian leadership willing and able to make and enforce a viable agreement.

The synthesis of these two contradictory sentiments is what has led to the accelerating spread of unilateralism. The concept was first conceived on the left and then championed by former Labor prime minister Ehud Barak. Its embrace last week by Olmert, considered one of Sharon’s closest allies, puts it close to the center of power.

In some ways it is a political ideology created by a fence. An overwhelming public outcry for a physical barrier against Palestinian terrorists forced Sharon, against his better judgment, to start building the $10 billion security fence between Israel and the West Bank last year. By delineating the fence inside West Bank territory, despite strong Palestinian objections and harsh American criticism, Sharon and his government laid the foundations for the unilateralist concept now taking root in the emerging center.

The most explicit version of the unilateralist concept to date was Olmert’s in his December 5 interview with journalist Nahum Barnea of Yediot Aharonot. Citing a demographic danger of an impending Arab majority within what is now Israel and the territories, Olmert called for a withdrawal to lines that would create an Israel whose population is 80% Jewish. That would require giving up more than 90% of the West Bank, far more than Sharon is believed willing to consider.

Sharon’s vision of partition, based on maps he has shown visitors, appears to involve withdrawal from at most 60% of the West Bank. In a speech to a business group this week, Sharon dismissed the demographic threat cited by Olmert and others, insisting that time is “on Israel’s side.”

Sharon has promised the Bush administration that he will give one last chance to the Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qurei, despite the dismal failure this week of Qurei’s attempt to win a new inter-Palestinian cease-fire. Talks in Cairo between leaders of Qurei’s Fatah faction and Islamic fundamentalists from Hamas and Islamic Jihad broke down when the Islamic groups refused to end attacks on Israelis.

Sharon’s aides say his flirtation with the unilateralist approach is aimed partly as a warning to Qurei that Israel’s patience is wearing thin, and that time is running out. Even so, his expected public commitment to unilateral steps at the Herzliya conference would put Sharon on record and ultimately could force him, so his right-wing critics warn, to make good on his promises.

Perhaps ironically, the unilateralist tendency of Israeli public opinion could potentially put it at much greater loggerheads with the rest of the world than the continued occupation and status quo in the territories. While Sharon’s flirtation with one-sided measures is viewed inside Israel as a clear lurch to the left, it is strenuously opposed in most other capitals, including Washington. World public opinion would view unilateral steps as disrupting any chance for peace and as preceding direct Israeli annexation of areas in dispute. Indeed, senior administration officials were warning this week that the unilateral steps Sharon is discussing, if intended to redraw the map permanently, would “not be viable.”

Within Israel, where chances for peace are considered too slim to be disrupted, the main question was not whether Sharon’s promised plan would be viable, but whether he finally intended to take action or was simply playing for time, as he has so many times before.

With Reporting by Ha’aretz

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